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For the first 6,000 years of human civilization, carbon monoxide wasn't a big problem in the home - unless, perhaps, you lived next door to a volcano. To be sure, the deadly gas has always been around and in the general atmosphere to some degree. And even cave dwellers with a fire near their rocky shelter's entrance got a bit of extra carbon-monoxide gas from the incomplete burning of hydrocarbons (i.e., the wood). So humans have been breathing carbon monoxide to a negligible degree since the dawn of civilization. But it wasn't until housing became more and more airtight in the last hundred years or so, and fossil fuels became an increasingly popular means of heating, cooking and traveling, that carbon-monoxide poisoning became a serious threat in the home. Now the odorless, colorless gas seems to be everywhere, and in increasingly dangerous amounts. From walking behind the lawnmower or stripping paint from the living-room baseboards to using space heaters, aging furnaces and gas cooking stoves, we live with more and more carbon-monoxide gas (also known as CO gas) nearly every day. Even the morning commute to work gives many people a dose of the toxic gas, particularly if you sit for long periods of time in bumper-to-bumper traffic. So the list of organizations concerned about CO-gas overdoses has gotten longer and longer. "We got our start in the early 1980s," says Melissa Heeke, spokeswoman for the Chimney Safety Institute of America in Plainfield, Ind. "That's when the issue of wood-burning stoves made it necessary for people to be more aware of chimney safety issues," notes Heeke, whose organization certifies chimney sweeps. Indeed, regardless of fuel type, proper venting of appliances is foremost among the CO-gas issues facing modern-day homeowners. Depending on whose statistics you read, anywhere from 200 to 1,600 annual accidental deaths are attributable to CO poisoning, making the problem significant enough for the average homeowner to take steps to prevent a mishap. But first it's important to understand the enemy. CO Stealth Carbon-monoxide gas is pretty deceptive, even though most people think it's pretty obvious. Yes, the smell of auto exhaust fumes - the best-known source of CO gas - is easily identifiable. But what you smell is not CO gas, which is actually odorless. Likewise, charcoal grills give off plenty of CO gas, and do so long after the smell of lighter fluid disappears. But again, you can't smell it. Many paint strippers also pump CO gas into the air as their chemicals react with the paint. But apart from the smell of the stripper, most people don't know they are inhaling CO gas. The symptoms of CO-gas exposure are also misleading. Headache, drowsiness and a feeling of malaise or irritability are the preliminary signals. But after a couple of hours in afternoon commuter traffic, most drivers may attribute those symptoms to the stress of endless stop-and-go movement or encounters with road-raged drivers. Likewise, the nausea and a rundown feeling associated with winter flu bugs may actually come from a malfunctioning heating system or even the gas cookstove in the kitchen. The advanced symptom of CO poisoning is unconsciousness, followed by the potential for brain damage and eventually death. Exactly how CO gas works on your body is a bit sneaky, too. Essentially, it chemically blocks your blood's ability to pick up oxygen and carry that vital gas to cells and organs. Thus, with doses of CO gas, you are slowly and gently asphyxiated. The process works much more quickly on people with cardiovascular or pulmonary diseases and conditions. For people with heart and lung problems, a dose of CO gas can trigger a heart attack, dangerous coughing spasms, or both. CO Prevention With all this in mind, it's a good idea to take steps to prevent CO gas from getting into your living space. "That's why we recommend you have your chimney and furnace flues inspected by a chimney professional at least once a year," says Heeke of the CSIA. She notes chimneys and furnace flues can be blocked during the warmer months by industrious birds or during the heating season by soot and creosote buildups. As these deposits accumulate, it gets harder and harder for combustion by-products to escape, increasing the likelihood of CO gas building up in the house. Bathroom and cooking range fans can be another reason CO gas will build up within the living space. In modern, tightly sealed houses, a bathroom or cooking-range fan can create negative pressure in the house. Although that may sound like a New Age term, it actually means the air being forced out of the house by the fan is being replaced by air coming into the house via the furnace flues and chimney. That air often contains CO gas, particularly during the winter, when all the windows are closed tightly and the furnace runs regularly. To prevent negative pressure, you should crack open a window near the fan while the fan is running. Indoor space heaters and nonelectric cooking stoves can also be a source of CO gas. The combustion standards for older space heaters and nonelectric cooking stoves (generally speaking, before 1985) were not as stringent as they are today. Likewise, even today's indoor fossil-fuel appliances must be run according to manufacturer specifications, which may include an annual inspection by an appliance technician. You can also roughly check out your appliance's capacity to burn at top efficiency (and thereby reduce CO-gas emissions) by a visual inspection of the flame. Gas appliances must burn with a blue flame throughout. Any yellow in the flame is an indication of incomplete combustion, possible CO-gas emissions and a good reason for a call to an appliance repair technician. In wood-burning appliances, any smell of smoke, soot buildup on viewing ports or the fire dying out on its own is an indication of trouble. Again, contact the appliance's manufacturer or a furnace expert for advice. Garages are also notorious for introducing CO gas into the living space. Unless your garage is completely detached from the house, there is usually a chance of CO-gas infiltration simply from starting the car in the morning. Obviously, letting a car, lawn mower, generator or other gasoline-burning device run continuously in the garage is a bad idea. Also, burning a charcoal grill, using large amounts of paint stripper or even running the gas grill in the garage is unwise. To make an attached garage safer, start with blocking off any second-story passageways between the house and the garage. Frequently, even when a builder installs airtight doors between the garage and house on the first floor, the attic spaces are left open. The two buildings should be sealed off from each other. Also be sure to open the garage door before you start your car and, once started, immediately pull the vehicle out. Unlike cars of 20 years ago, today's modern vehicles don't need warm-up time to protect internal engine parts. Open windows also can be a source of CO gas. Idling lawn mowers, emergency generators and misplaced exhaust ports from chimney-less furnaces have all been sources of CO gas that entered the building and overcame occupants. Prevention in these cases is a matter of exercising a bit of extra caution and/or following manufacturer installation and operation guidelines for the appliance. CO Detectors Even if you take all steps possible to prevent CO gas from entering your home, accidents do happen. That's where a CO detector comes in. "We think every home in America should have at least one carbon-monoxide detector," says Ken Giles, a spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission. He says about 20 percent of homes today have a CO detector in them, compared with 90 percent of homes having one or more smoke alarms in them. "We'd like to see CO detectors as common as smoke detectors," Giles says. Indeed, some states and municipalities are making CO detectors part of their building-code requirements. New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and West Virginia now require CO detectors in new housing, as do the cities of St. Louis and Chicago. Additionally, Pennsylvania, Texas, Massachusetts and Oregon are all considering laws requiring CO detectors. Whether required or not, the latest generation of CO detectors is less expensive and more reliable than those used in a Chicago CO-detector experiment of the early 1990s. Those city-mandated detectors were so sensitive, they set off numerous false alarms, running local fire departments ragged. Today, CO detectors are all either approved by Underwriters' Laboratories (the UL label) or the International Approval Services (the IAS label) to be sensitive to CO gas only when it becomes dangerous for an extended period of time. The alarms are designed to go off when CO levels reach 70 parts per million (ppm) for an hour or more. That level is unlikely to cause symptoms in healthy adults. But for longer periods, or greater ppm levels, or for small children and people with heart or lung problems, that benchmark can be a danger threshold. At any rate, the ppm reading may be something you want to track while you're at work as well as at home. In that case, it's probably best to purchase a CO detector that digitally displays the CO level in its immediate area. Some models actually remember the peak level in the past 24 hours. Levels of 150 ppm or more for more than 90 minutes will cause symptoms for most anyone. Levels in excess of 400 ppm can cause loss of consciousness and worse. CO detectors cost between $20 and slightly more than $100, with the vast majority falling in the $35 to $50 range. About half are battery operated, while the rest are plug-in. The less expensive models typically don't offer a digital display of the ppm level. All have a test/reset button, and some have visual alarm options for hearing-impaired users. Virtually all hardware stores and home-product mass marketers offer a variety of models. Placement of a CO detector in the home requires some thoughtful consideration. Placing it in the furnace room will likely produce some unnecessary alarms, while placing it too far from possible CO sources won't produce an alarm soon enough. Most manufacturers include instructions on the best locations. One on each living level is frequently recommended. It's best to keep them out of the sleeping rooms to give a more advanced warning when you're snoozing. Basement stairwells often give early warnings without causing unnecessary alarms. Living rooms and rooms attached to the garage are also good locations. In the event a CO detector goes off, immediately get some fresh air circulating in the alarm area. Open a window regardless of the weather outside. Anyone in the alarm area with CO-poisoning symptoms should move to an area of fresh air. If the symptoms persist or other symptoms develop, get the person to a hospital emergency room. n Ken Textor is a freelance writer located in Arrowsic, Maine.